As the popularity of right-wing populist parties has soared in recent years, Ireland contrasts in exhibiting a notable dearth of such a party. From the nationalist UK Brexit movement in Ireland’s close neighbor to the transformation of the United States GOP under Donald Trump, right-wing populism has become a governing force among the globe’s most powerful players. Reasons for such a shift include increasing income and wealth inequality, social discontent in a more globalised society, and the use of xenophobic misinformation by the media, among others.
Ireland, a post-industrial and quickly diversifying nation, fits the mould for a political environment in which a right-wing populist party could thrive; however, the country’s political landscape has remained dominated by a duopoly of centre-right parties: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. That is, until the 2020 Dáil general election results revealed an astonishing surge of Sinn Féin, Ireland’s vexed populist, left-wing party, garnering a plurality of the national vote. Leader Mary Lou McDonald’s previously unpopular caucus enjoyed a shocking upset and virtual mandate as a coalition of youth and working-class voters catapulted them to the summit of the polls. Despite the party’s contentious past, “United Ireland” Sinn Féin has now emerged as a powerful opposition within the Irish Dáil Éireann, proving itself a paragon for left-wing populist politics. Such a party was able to garner immense support due to its consistency in eschewing hypocrisy, vision for structural economic reform in favor of the worker, and most importantly, its unique commitment to national identity balanced with a measured embrace of immigration and globalization.
It is essential to contextualize Ireland’s current economic environment in order to grasp the heightened nature of populist discontent. From the mid-1990s to late-2000s, Ireland enjoyed a period of rapid economic growth known as the Celtic Tiger. This roaring economy lent credit to immense foreign direct investment incentivized by a low corporate tax rate. However, the 2008 banking crisis promptly ended the economic expansion as a rising property bubble burst. The subsequent collapse of the banking and construction industries had major consequences extending far into the future, seeing as Ireland’s housing market has now reached crisis levels with unavailability of units and overwhelming cost. Since 2012, median house prices in Dublin have risen by nearly 100%, coinciding with a more than 350% increase in homelessness in the city. Young Irish and the working class cannot afford these prices. In fact, Irish youth emigrate from the country in droves, with 12,500 emigrants under the age of 24 in the year up to April 2018. The Irish people feel great financial duress while their government does little to assist, giving ample room for populism of any form.
Since 1927, either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael have headed Ireland’s governing coalition, both embracing a centre-right, corporatist agenda. Both parties strongly defend Ireland’s infamously low 12.5% tax rate on corporations, artificially inflating the nation’s GDP as one of the world’s largest tax havens. In fact, differences between the two parties have primarily fallen along tribal lines since the parties’ opposite affiliations during the Irish Civil War. While Fianna Fáil led the governing coalition for most of close to a century, its losses in the wake of Ireland’s 2009 Recession gave room for a Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition to rebuild the economy in 2011. However, extreme austerity measures intended to stabilize the economy came across as a betrayal on the part of the Labour Party, decimating their caucus in the 2016 election cycle. Meanwhile, left-wing Sinn Féin began its popularity ascension, eventually rising to 24.5% of the popular vote in 2020, the most of any party in the election.
For nearly the entirety of the past century, Sinn Féin operated on the fringes of Irish politics. The party’s strong historical affiliation with the paramilitary Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) alienated Irish voters marred by the troubles in the late 20th century. Although current party framing of a ‘United Ireland’ stands as a goal by political means rather than violence, one cannot deny Sinn Féin’s past associations with IRA terrorism. Recent electoral gains suggest the perception of the party has altered dramatically, as McDonald insisted the party has no ties with any form of the IRA. Even still, traditional rivals Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael formed an historic coalition government in 2020 with the express intent of excluding ‘radical’ Sinn Féin from governing. Indeed, the most-voted-for party in Ireland has now become the official opposition within government.
Being post-industrial with an influx of immigration and history of ethnic nationalism, Ireland presents the prime environment for far-right populism. Having had two ruling parties of nearly identical ideology with a shared commitment to corporate interests makes the country even more conducive to a reactionary right-wing emergence. As political theorist Chantal Mouffe posits, “When democratic politics has lost its capacity to mobilise people around distinct political projects…, the conditions are ripe for talented demagogues to articulate popular frustration.”
This begs the question as to why Sinn Féin, a provocative, historically ostracized caucus, could fill the space more typically inhabited by radical right-wing parties. Furthermore, why did the traditionally more popular Irish Labour not gain traction as Ireland had a leftward swing? The key lies in Sinn Féin’s tact political messaging designed to capitalize upon establishment frustration across a diverse, unlikely coalition of voters.
To combat Ireland’s housing crisis and capitalize upon populist sentiment, Sinn Féin’s manifesto for the past election includes: rent reduction and rent freezes, a massive affordable housing construction endeavor, and an authorization of the Central Bank to cap mortgage interest rates. Furthermore, the party pledges to abolish income tax for the lowest bracket and reduce the cost of childcare, as well as expanding the healthcare capacity of the state and lowering the age for retirement pension. Among myriad other left-wing policies, these commitments elucidate Sinn Féin’s appeal to youth and the working class.
Further, Sinn Féin’s strategy to overcome cultural malaise comes into play in the party’s nationalist messaging. Rather than promulgating a xenophobic nationalism like many right-wing populists, Sinn Féin has carefully directed their language to foment a nationalism of unity over division. McDonald’s caucus campaigned on a United Ireland, true to the party’s ethos, and a preservation of Irish culture—not in racial or ethnic terms, but instead in celebratory terms of support for the colonized Irish Gaelic language. In doing so, the party appealed to struggling white working-class voters with a desire to feel national pride whilst securing an inclusive coalition that encompasses a growing sect of working-class immigrants. This is proven in the party’s overwhelming victories in electoral divisions with a high density of immigrants and divisions with majority white working-class populations. Finally, the party does not turn off the more socially progressive youth vote who identify with a culture of emigration.
Labour, the party typically associated with movement toward a stronger social safety net and left-wing sentiment, misses the mark on this crucial coalition-building strategy. Whilst appealing in its policies geared toward a working-class voting bloc, the Labour Party fails to captivate the hope and excitement white, working-class voters desire in their frustration with the establishment. Ireland’s housing crisis should have propelled Labour to the forefront of political consideration, yet their recent betrayal in ceding to Fine Gael’s and the European Union’s calls for austerity after the Great Recession leaves a bad taste in the mouths of a populace embittered by decades of establishment perfidy. Oppositely, Sinn Féin takes strength in its positional consistency. While the party has had little opportunity to govern and therefore little opportunity to walk back promises, Sinn Féin is yet to commit a gaffe to the extent of Labour’s in 2010. Irish voters tend to value competence in government as a primary criterion in electoral decision making due to the extreme similitude of the ruling parties for the past century. Consequently, Labour’s current Dáil seats stand at a mere six, while Sinn Féin boasts a proud thirty-seven seat caucus. Both distance from hypocrisy and electoral coalition building distinguish Sinn Féin from Labour, its less successful ideological neighbor. There is little doubt that Sinn Féin has ridden the populist, anti-establishment wave of politics witnessed worldwide. Of course, every nation’s domestic politics differs, structurally and culturally; what works for Sinn Féin in Ireland might not necessarily translate neatly to other countries. However, evidence exists that the party’s careful nationalist messaging works for other left-wing parties, too. For example, Syriza in Greece saw their greatest victories in 2015 when party leaders adopted nationalist messaging just before the election. Spain’s Podemos Coalition espoused a reaffirming of Spanish fiscal federalism within the EU, whilst maintaining Union membership, before their breakthrough 2015 performance. The two parties have recently faltered as their promises were not delivered; however, mainstream austerity has still left a sour taste in the mouths of Europeans post-recovery. Spain’s Vox party, a radical right party, seems to now capitalize upon Spanish working class discontent in Podemos’s place. Lines between left and right wing parties blur as the parties become more extreme; and as such, the parties’ electorates overlap greatly. As right-wing populism majorly grips the current reigns of populist sentiment, left-wing populist parties should look to the Sinn Féin hopeful and inclusive stratagem as a model for electoral success.
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